Anyone who says that 21st-century America is incurably irreligious needs only to consider the national reaction to the tragic death of retired basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, 41, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven other people near Calabasas, CA. Amid the scattered wreckage of the January 26 helicopter crash, the 20-year Los Angeles Laker has been not only lionized, but canonized.
Last Friday’s game—the first for the Lakers since Bryant’s death—took on the trappings of a religious ceremony. Like followers of Jesus who are called “Christians” (little Christs, clothed in His righteousness), each member of the starting five was introduced as “Kobe Bryant” while wearing either Bryant’s No. 8 or No. 24 jersey. LeBron James, who some years ago took the torch from Bryant as the game’s best active player, retold the story of his hero as if he were preaching about a resurrected savior.
“I look at this as a celebration tonight,” James told the assembly at Staples Center. “This is a celebration of the 20 years of the blood, the sweat, the tears, the broken-down body, the getting up, the sitting down, the everything. The countless hours, the determination to be as great as he could be. Tonight, we celebrate the kid that came here at 18 years of age, retired at 38 and became probably the best dad we’ve seen over the past three years, man.”
Much of Bryant’s turn to faith and spirituality came in the wake of a 2003 incident in a Colorado hotel room that a 19-year-old woman called rape. Bryant claimed that he thought what happened between them was consensual, the charges were dropped, and he settled with the woman, who had filed a civil suit.
Bryant’s religious stature after his death was raised by approving references to the fact that he and his daughter had attended Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady Queen of the Angels just before boarding the ill-fated Sikorsky S-76B at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana at 9:06 a.m. Another time Bryant had mentioned how much a talk with a priest had meant to him.
Bryant once said, “God is great…until you got to pick up that cross that you can’t carry [alone], and He picks it up for you and carries you and the cross. Then you know…it don’t get no simpler than that, bro’.”
Indeed not. Much of Bryant’s turn to faith and spirituality came in the wake of a 2003 incident in a Colorado hotel room that a 19-year-old woman called rape. Bryant claimed that he thought what happened between them was consensual, the charges were dropped, and he settled with the woman, who had filed a civil suit.
Not surprisingly, there are iconoclasts among us who have expressed doubts about Kobe’s sanctity. One of them is Felicia Sonmez, a Washington Post reporter who—within hours of the helicopter crash—tweeted a story about the alleged sexual assault. Sonmez, who said she had suffered a sexual assault, faced a severe backlash over the atrociously timed tweet and was suspended by the Post, before quickly being reinstated.
Then, a week after the tragedy, Disney heiress Abigail Disney engaged in a Twitter “tirade” against Bryant. Disney, who also said she had been assaulted, stated, “Do not deify him, he was not a god,” and “he was a rapist. Deal with it.”
The life of Kobe Bryant forces us to “deal with it”—and to look anew at our ideas of sin and redemption. While fewer and fewer Americans embrace any formal kind of faith, we just cannot seem to re-form the intrinsically religious shape of our souls. Some of us see Bryant as an unyielding apostle of hard work and uber-competitiveness—quintessentially American ideals. Others see him as a pampered, privileged athlete who took from another human being to satisfy his own selfish urges.
Those in the first camp tend to skim past the sin, pointing to evidence that he became a changed man “after Colorado,” repairing his marriage to Vanessa and becoming a more engaged, loving father to his four daughters. Those in the second, however, seem to subscribe to the theory that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”—Bryant’s blood.
Yet is there a middle ground for Kobe Bryant? By all accounts over the years he did change, even becoming a prominent supporter of women’s sports. Is it fair to brand the Kobe of 2020 with an ugly charge that was dismissed and (at least somewhat) paid for in 2003? What would the woman in that hotel room say today about the new, improved Bryant—and about his canonization?
Are people always to be defined by their worst days, or can we acknowledge growth, repentance, and even a measure of redemption on the human plane? I think we must at least hold out this possibility, even while we remember the sins. Otherwise, in today’s relentlessly woke cancel culture, none of us is safe.
But there are clear limits to redemption on the theological plane, which the Bible says is God’s work, not ours. No man can expiate his own sins, because the primary offended party is not a man—or a woman. It is God Himself.
Ultimately, the two extremes of sin and redemption come together only under the atoning cross of Christ, which allows God to “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
If Kobe Bryant could speak with us today, I suspect he would acknowledge the frightening depth of his sin, in both his best days and in his worst. Let us pray that he can also point to the even greater depth of God’s grace for him, and for us.